We are often asked for advice when it comes to choosing an inflatable boat so we have put together this information as a guide based on Zane's 40 plus years in the industry. If you have a question regarding a new or used inflatable we are happy to assist.
So many brands, sizes and types are now available with all kinds of claims re performance and quality and it can be confusing if you are a first, or even second time buyer. We will try and simplify this process for you and break it down to a few basic lists.
We will cover buying a used boat at the end.
The most common fabrics are Hypalon (CSM) or PVC and both come in various quality grades. Construction methods for PVC are glued seam or welded with Hypalon being glued only.
So which is the best? That depends a little bit on where you live or do your boating. Strictly speaking Hypalon is superior to PVC in UV & abrasion resistance, generally impervious to petrol and oils and will last longer. The catch is the cost. Good quality Hypalon fabrics from manufacturers such as Achilles, Pennel & Flipo & Zodiac are nearly twice the cost of PVC and in many instances is questionable economy. The best quality PVC from suppliers like Mehler Texnologies in Europe should last around 15 years or more in most areas of the world, except constant exposure in the Tropics.
We are certainly seeing this grade of PVC still in working condition in Tasmania after 15 years and more. Some cheap PVC's might only last a few years.
We tend to recommend Hypalon for commercial clients (Police, Government, Rescue etc) and for those who are going to give their boat a very hard existence and want a long service life. If you live in the Tropical areas with high heat and humidity this is still the best choice. Low grade Hypalon (cheap) will not last anywhere near as long and we have found them to be a bit soft and break down with UV exposure.
Budget is still a large part of any new boat purchase and you can certainly be very happy with a quality PVC craft and extend the working life with tube covers and end up paying substantially less than Hypalon for only a few years less usage. Our sales in Tasmania are generally 98% PVC whilst a colleague of ours in Qld is the complete opposite.
Hypalon is cold glued, which is not a problem when good adhesives are used and generally speaking boats constructed this way will last the life of the fabric.
PVC can be glued or welded and there can be considerable difference in the long term results. We strongly recommend welded seam construction, so much so that we will NOT sell any glued PVC boats. We have had so many of this type turn up in the workshop with blown seams we have lost count and this is in the cooler climate in Tasmania. We have also noticed in recent years a few manufacturers advertising "chemical welding", this is just gluing and definitely not the same.
How can you tell what is quality? After all, they all look good on the showroom floor. Price baby, you get what you pay for. If it is cheap then there is a good reason. Check the warranty terms. For PVC we would be looking for 5 years on fabric & construction (unless in the Tropics, then a specific area warranty of 2 -3 years is ok) and 10 years on the fabrics for Hypalon. Make sure it is not a pro-rata warranty where the coverage decreases with each passing year and that you don't have to have the boat inspected annually to keep your warranty. Do a bit of research on the brand you are interested in, not hard to do with Google so no excuse. Talk to your local repairer, they will most likely know of any issues with most brands.
Ok, so you have decided on the fabric type, but what style of inflatable? The choice is pretty varied. Roll-Up boats with slat floors, wood or aluminium section floorboards, air-mat or inflatable floor, aluminium or fibreglass rigid hull?
These are the general differences, not a definitive list. This list does not include the cheap, lightweight PVC boats available from sporting goods or homeware stores as these are really only considered as beach toys, not a serious craft. Tend to have a very limited life and we rarely bother to repair them.
Narrow wood or synthetic slats on the floor. Cheap and simple, easy to roll up with the boat, easy to stow, very light. Can be loose and sloppy underfoot, only suited to very small outboards,no air keel, slats prone to breakage.
Very popular for small to medium dinghies where the ability to deflate and stow or inflate on a boat deck is an advantage. Lighter than wood floorboards and much firmer than you expect. Some care is needed with what you stow on the floor, air mat may not last the life of the boat.
Air Floor or V-Floor: The actual floor is inflatable and forms a V hull, light weight, planes easily. Not well liked by our repair staff, prone to damage, can be expensive to fix if a seam leaks due to the construction method. We do not recommend.
Was once the most common type of flooring. Relatively inexpensive, usually work well and gives a fairly good footing, can be disassembled for storage/transport. Requires regular maintenance to ensure long life, usually varnished, can bend easily in lighter boats, assembly can be tedious and sometimes difficult. If left fully inflated all the time should still be dis-assembled once or twice a year to clean sand, grit etc from underneath.
Very popular on bigger boats and a good choice when you want a hard wearing, solid flooring but still need to deflate and stow for storage/transport. Still needs to be regularly cleaned underneath.
Large range of styles from small dinghy to bloody big! Much nicer on the water performance and handling wise than soft hulls. Some brands beautifully designed. Can be very heavy and older boats can absorb moisture and increase in weight over time. Anything other than small dinghies will need a trailer for regular transport. Can't be folded up for storage.
OK, we will admit to a bias here. Smaller boats make ideal tenders, very light, easy to handle, good on the water. The bigger models are still much lighter than fibreglass, which means a smaller outboard can be used for the same performance, won't absorb moisture so no weight increase.Not as pretty as fibreglass in some cases but much tougher hull and can withstand much harsher use. Ideal for commercial users. Not as many manufacturers producing these as a higher skill level is required to make the actual alloy hull so your choice of brands is limited.
Not everyone can afford or necessarily need a new boat, but how do you find a good used one? Here are a few tips on what to look for.
Don't buy sight unseen, you need to touch and inspect the boat. First of all run your fingers over the fabric, with PVC look for any hard or cracked areas on the tubes, the fabric should be flexible and not stiff nor make any cracking sounds when bent. Examine the edges of seams for cracking or separation. Lift the boat up or get underneath and carefully check the floor, especially around the transom area. This is where fuel spills are most likely to occur and that can cause big problems.
With Hypalon run a fingernail along the tubes and see if it feels powdery, scratches easily, feels soft or the surface is crazed or cracked. In larger boats in particular examine the underside of the tubes around the transom for any hardening, cracking or lots of repairs. A boat that has been run consistently under-inflated can have delamination and seam breakdown in this location. Check the adhesion of fittings and general condition. A few repairs are ok, but not an excessive amount.
With wooden transoms inspect for any signs of rot or cracking, paying extra attention to the lower corners adjacent to the tubes. If you detect any signs of softness or poor adhesion, run away!
PVC will fade over time but if the tubes are badly discoloured or appear a bit sunburnt I would suggest looking elsewhere. Hypalon can get a discolouration or "bloom" on the surface but can usually be cleaned off without causing any harm.
We also offer a free inspection in our workshop for local customers by appointment (you bring to us). This does not include trailer or outboard.
We hope this helps you make a choice and hasn't muddied the waters even further!
As always, we are happy to give advice, feel free to drop in or give us a call.
Happy Boating :)